From the moment the intro to "Young Folks" started whistling and Serena van der Woodsen stepped off that train in Grand Central with her tousled blonde hair, tan leather jacket and Breton-striped tee, television would never be the same. Sure, we would spend six seasons tuning in to "Gossip Girl" so we could follow the misadventures of our favorite Upper East Siders and Brooklyn-dwellers, from the mundane (not getting into college) to the absolutely insane (fake deaths are only the beginning), but, if we're all being honest, most of us stayed glued to our screens for the fashion.
Blair's headbands, Jenny's home-sewn dresses, Serena's insane cleavage-enhancing tops, Chuck's scarf: Every character had style signatures that told the world just who they were from the moment that first episode aired on September 19, 2007. The costumes helped "Gossip Girl" hit a level of pop culture phenomenon the likes of which hadn't been seen since "Sex and the City" — and the tie that binds the two together is costume designer Eric Daman.
But it almost didn't happen that way: After assisting on "Sex and the City," Daman had sworn off TV shows forever. "I was like, 'I'm never doing episodic television again; the grind is terrible, it's just relentless, it's killing my art,'" he says with a laugh. He was on hold to do a film with indie director Todd Solondz and nearly turned down the opportunity to work on "Gossip Girl." Thankfully, his boyfriend intervened.
"When I first got the script for the 'Gossip Girl' pilot, I wasn't familiar with the book series, and I was like, 'Oh, a pilot for a TV series; it's just not for me.' There was a moment where I wasn't even gonna read the script, and then my boyfriend was like, 'Why don't you just read the first page?'" Daman explains. "I read the first page, and it totally dragged me right in; my teen mean girl came out immediately, and I was just obsessed. Then I read the book series, and I just felt in me that I had to be a part of this project — and I'm very happy that I did."
It's a safe bet that most "Gossip Girl" fans feel the same way. On the eve of the show's 10th anniversary, we hopped on the phone with Daman to ask him everything from how he developed Blair and Serena's signature styles to which fashion moment on the show proved most challenging (hint: it involves Rachel Zoe).
You know you love us. XOXO, Fashionista.
What attracted you to taking the "Gossip Girl" job?
I went and had my meeting with Stephanie Savage, who's the creator, producer and writer of it, with my mood boards and tear sheets, and did a presentation with her. She'd made a research book of her own and our tear sheets and our imagery was almost 90 percent the same: Kate Moss inspiration for Serena, Aubrey Hepburn for Blair. It was really on the same page from the get-go. From there, we were just like a match made in heaven. It was pretty magical the whole time.
How did you develop these characters' signature styles?
At the beginning, I delved into the books — and I could talk about all the characters, but it's easier just to focus on Blair and Serena. I'm happy to go into [other characters], but we would be here for hours. [Laughs]
They were so different and individual in the beginning. Blair just seemed meticulous, OCD; everything had to be perfect, and she had to please her mom. She had a lot more strife in the book about who she was and with [bulimia], and we weren't going to bring all that into the series, but I thought bringing that very meticulous, thought-out way of being to her dressing would be key in who she was. And Serena would be much more international, Bohemian; she's almost like a bird that was traveling and just picking up things throughout Europe and had this very different, easy-going nonchalance about her. I would say Blair is American Vogue and Serena was Italian Vogue, in a way.
So, that was base originally: the difference between these two girls and how their dressing would be influenced by who they were as people. That's what I really love about costumes and doing all this, is that you really get to create these characters and these emotions and develop who they are through what we see them wearing. It comes out on display.
How did that evolve over the course of the show? Were the actors helping out as they became more familiar with their characters?
Yes and no; I think it's very important for me to have an open dialogue with any actor I work with. Basically, what I am there for is to give them the tools to help become those characters, and working with Blake and Leighton and all the kids, it was all different processes.
But Leighton was so different than Blair Waldorf. She was not the same stylistically or emotionally at all as Blair. She really deferred to me in the fittings, and she loved that I would have all these amazing outfits set up for her to become Blair Waldorf. She would come in and let me transform her completely into Blair. She said in press that she'd walk in and turn into Blair Waldorf, which was a really cool metamorphosis.
Whereas with Blake, Blake wanted to play with the clothes and be a part of it, and I think Blake and Serena had a symbiotic relationship, in a way, stylistically. I'd bring in all these racks of things that I thought were perfect for Serena and outfits that had some architectural design — like if we need a party look or a school look — and have that laid out to work with her on. But then we had a wonderful back and forth of what each outfit was going to be and how it went together. She got more and more involved in that way as Serena grew and as Blake grew. When she first came in, I think she was open to deferring to me because she was just learning. She was wide-eyed; she loved it all so much and wanted to be around the fashion and wanted to learn about it all.
It was great. It was so cool to see them all grow into these fashion superstars, and all of a sudden hear about Blake hanging out with Anna Wintour and having lunch with Karl Lagerfeld, or Leighton and me going to do a Vera Wang campaign.
How did you tackle putting together school uniforms that consistently looked different and worked for each character?
Initially, when I read it, I was like, "We just have these school uniforms. It can't just be white blouses, pleated skirts and knee socks — we have to do something really incredible and kind of poignant." If you watched the whole first season, it's mostly the school uniforms; it was such a big piece to them.
So, I actually went and hung out around the Upper East Side [private] schools like Chapin. I wanted to do real research because I'm an East Village kid and I'm a part of fashion, but that world is a very different world and I wanted to go see it for myself — and this is before iPhones. I was outside taking pictures of girls. [Laughs] I felt like a creeper! But it was incredible to see, these girls were all running in posses that were designer brand influenced. All the girls wearing Tory Burch flats — this was when Tory Burch flats were a big thing — were hanging out together. Then there was a group of girls carrying Marc Jacobs bags or girls carrying Coach. It felt like there was a brand identity and how they were styling themselves had to do with that brand.
It sparked that it does make sense that these girls are wearing these brands. We wanted to figure out how we could introduce that as part of the school uniform and come up with a formula for what our basic school uniform is; it's the white blouse and the pleated skirt, but how much further can we push that?
Serena comes back from having left the school, and she wears her school's uniform skirt from her freshman year, so it's a different plaid than the other girls are wearing. She's a rule-breaker, so maybe she just wears T-shirts and is a little bit less formal about it, but as long as it was a white shirt of some sort, we could get away with it. I think it worked really, really well that she didn't wear collared shirts, and that we saved that for Blair and her cronies. That was the initial thing that set the two looks apart, that we took a little bit of liberty; Serena was such a free spirit that she was like, "I'm just going to wear my henley and my skinny tie," and Blair's in a ruffled blouse and a cape. It just really differentiates who they are.
How did your relationship with designers evolve as the show went on?
It was like night and day. Doing Season One was like pulling teeth to get anything. We'd get some of the downtown designers that I knew from when I was styling to give us stuff, but overall, designers didn't want to lend to television at all. It's not like editorial; we have to hold onto this stuff for three to four weeks while we're shooting and the episode gets locked. It's not on a two-day turnaround, so it's hard to have samples out for that long.
The kids weren't known in the beginning, so it was definitely a challenge, Season One, that we didn't have many designers participating. Then I feel like something happened between Season One and Season Two, over that break where there was the writer's strike. The CW did a big push of advertising and there was this tipping point; all of a sudden, the kids were in People magazine; Blake and Leighton are on the covers of Vogue — they were just everywhere.
At that moment when we came back, bigger designers were very interested in working with us. Once we got one bigger designer to say yes, it's like letting the flood gates open, and early on, Chanel said yes. All of a sudden, everybody wanted to be a part of it. Because there was so much paparazzi and the girls were constantly getting shot on the street holding their Chanel bag or their Fendi bag or their Chloé boots and they were getting editorial attention from that, everyone jumped on the bandwagon.
It was like the deluge after that. It was just a full-on flood of being able to work with pretty much every designer. It was nuts. When you were in it, it was hard to see how incredible it was, because it's a day-to-day grind and we're working 14 hours a day. We're always trying to, every episode, outdo ourselves. By the end of it, it was an incredible thing, because we did have stuff right off the runway.
It definitely was a show that continually outdid itself. Was that challenging towards the end? Did you feel you constantly had to pull something more and more over the top?
It was! It was like, "Shit, I really just shot myself in the foot." [Laughs] Because there was so much attention on it, it's not like you could relax; you couldn't take it easy. Usually by Season Five of a TV show, it's just like, "Okay, this is our recipe: Serena's gonna be in a glitter hot short and some thigh high boots and keep it at that." Creatively and inspirationally, it was amazing to keep us on our toes for six seasons and keep the bar going higher and higher, trying to find young designers, finding the great new piece and mix it all up so it stayed germane to each character. To help grow their character arcs and everything through their clothing was cool; it was a really wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience, I think.
What were your favorite costumes on the show?
I have a hard time with specific outfits, because it's bigger than that for me, but my favorite episodes were the Paris episodes. I went to college in Paris, and spent from ages 19 to 24 in Paris, so it was amazing to go back to Paris with this "Gossip Girl" culture. It was couture week at the same time, so just being in Paris and doing these episodes alone was just incredible. But on top of it, because we were in Paris, I could go to the Parisian showrooms and go to Balmain or Balenciaga and actually pick things from their showrooms. ["Gossip Girl" creator] Stephanie Savage and I were both on the same page that, if we're doing Paris, we're going to make it super-elevated, and it's fine for them to wear couture in the daytime — just let 'em have it. I feel like it was "Gossip Girl" 2.0 as far as the elements we were using. Stylistically, it feels super-elevated to me in a really fun way.
The experience there was so nuts. It was like Beatlemania with "Gossip Girl" there. We had to add extra security. There were kids hanging out of apartment windows, screaming at us on the set. People were running after me in the street — me. I was like, "What's going on?" [Laughs] There were kids camped out outside of our hotel. I guess I didn't realize what an international phenomenon [it was]. You're in New York, and it becomes this capsule, like, "This is our city, everything's going on here, we're at the center of it." But to be in Paris and see the French reacting like that, it really hit me; I was like, "Oh shit. This much bigger than I really knew."
Who is your favorite character to dress overall?
I get that [question], and I'm always like, "It's like picking your favorite child!" [Sighs] I feel like if there was really one to pick, I'd have to say it was Chuck Bass, because I feel like what we did for menswear for him — how we dressed him and who he was, how he carried it all — was very pioneering in the menswear world. I think he relaunched menswear and being able to dress like a gentleman. It wasn't just about jeans and T-shirts and being 'super sport guy.' We took being masculine and made it okay to wear ascots and pink jackets and be flamboyant like a peacock, like men used to be. It wasn't seen as fay or dandy. I love that he really switched a button for men to dress better.
Did you have a least favorite character to dress or a character that posed the most challenges?
No, I really enjoyed them all. I think they all came with their own challenges and their own inspirations and their own characters. One of the hardest moments we had was when Rachel Zoe was a guest star — not because she was difficult, but because, you know, "Oh my God, we're dressing Rachel Zoe." And we're "Gossip Girl," so we have to deliver; it's not like we can be like, "Here's your off-the-rack thing!" On top of it, there was this stunt where she falls on top of a chocolate fountain, and her outfit gets covered in chocolate, so whatever it was, we needed at least two of them. Finding that was like a needle in the haystack.
She was really into muumuus, and Pucci sent us one that was beautiful; it was royal blue and gold embroidered, right off the runway, and I was like, "We have to have it in there, it's incredible." Of course, she fell in love with it; we only have one, and she shoots the next day. Somehow my team and Pucci tag-teamed and they had one left over from model fittings, and they flew it over that night and it got to us the next day. It was just one of those incredible behind-the-scenes moments that was slightly stressful and totally incredible at the same time.
"Gossip Girl" was known for having those big events at the end of every episode —
Did you prefer doing the day dressing or did you enjoy doing those party looks more?
Both. If it was just all day wear and school outfits, that could've gotten monotonous. Having both of those elements really helped me have a nice balance. It was the yin to the yang in all of it; you get to have the really glamorous day looks, but then you also get to pump it up and have them in these amazing gala gowns or cocktail events.
When did you decide it was time to make something for the show yourself?
It would be specific. I was the ghost designer behind Jenny Humphrey's line which was a lot of fun. Then if there were specific moments where we need to have things like tearaways, like Blair's debutant dress I designed and had made — I think that was one of the first big pieces that we did in-house, because there's a gag where half of the dress is ripped off, and I thought it seemed better just to make it ourselves.
I wanted to design a little bit. I'm a stylist — I'm used to working with fashion designers, creative directors — and I thought it'd be a nice way to integrate actual costume design and the design element into the show. It was a lot of fun and inspiring. It's really hard to do custom with television because of the day-to-day; the turnover in time between when you get the script and having stuff made is very tricky. I feel very privileged to have been able to make and design as much as we did.
Serena was known for wearing these tops that showed off her cleavage in interesting ways, and Vulture recaps started referring to them as —
The boob rhombus! [Laughs] I remember very well the boob rhombus.
Were you ever surprised by fan reaction to costumes?
I was pleasantly surprised, because you never know what's gonna stick. You throw all this stuff at the wall. I'm just sewing it and trying to create characters and create great outfits. It wasn't planned out that the headband was going to be a thing, or that Blake's thigh-high boots would become a thing. It just felt so germane to who they were and what we were doing. When I saw it, I was so delighted to see what the fans liked and what they were reacting to.
It also fed my design aesthetic, like, "Headbands are a thing. Let's keep growing the headbands." And from the get-go, with Blair's headbands, Stephanie and I were like, "She's always going to wear a headband." It was part of the very meticulous finishing to her — she sits in the mirror and it's the last thing she does. It's like the icing on the cake; it's like her force field and almost this powerful element that she wears. It's like her Linus blanket.
It was great. It's a lot of silly, high-fashion fun, and that's what I think is most important about fashion and dressing: That it should be fun, and not be mean and not have any kind of shaming to it or judgment about it. It's just like, "Wear your giant, jeweled headband and ruffled shirt and just have a really great time and be a little silly and ridiculous."
Were there ever any details that you felt that fans missed that were important either to the character or to a moment in the show?
Something that that never got pointed out, other than me telling people, is that Blair never repeated a headband in six seasons, and Serena never wore the same pair of shoes or carried the same bag in six seasons. We were very careful from the get-go. We wanted it to be living TV editorial; in editorial you don't see the same bag. These girls were not going repeat. That was something that wasn't as brought to light as I wish it had been.
Then there was also a duality I was playing with, with Blair and Chuck's colors when they were in certain scenes together, that would tie them together without really knowing that they're going to end up a couple. I would help illustrate that through keeping them in similar tonalities when they were in emotional scenes together. If she was in a green dress, he would have a green pocket square on; just things that were little hidden gems.
Blair always had such great lingerie, too.
She did. Of course she did! [Laughs] Trying to get inside the mind of Blair Waldorf, she's not wearing Hanes — which, there's nothing wrong with Hanes! If she wanted to wear Hanes, she'd turn that shit out. [Laughs] But it's so thought out, and it's so meticulously chosen that it has to be La Perla or it has to be Agent Provocateur. It has to be the best of the best and make her feel confident in her choice in that and what she thinks was going to turn the man on. Everything is thought out, even down to the lingerie.
Would you change anything about any of the costumes today?
I wouldn't. It seems like it hit its mark, and I'm just really happy that it did. People reacted to it and enjoyed what we were creating and the fun we were putting out there for people. It's cool to be able to create this over-the-top fantasy world that people could enjoy and use as escapism.
Do you ever look at runways today and think that one of the "Gossip Girl' characters would wear something?
This is really funny. I was just going to say, I feel like Serena would be wearing the Manolo x Vetements boots. [Laughs] So yes, yes I do.
I feel like they'd be more grown-up versions of themselves. I feel like she'd wear that with a Tom Ford silk cashmere sweater and Mother jeans, maybe wearing Lily's Pomellato earrings with it to give it a ladylike edge. But I think there's definitely that downtown element where she would be drawn to Vetements.
Recently, I saw some things at Rosie Assoulin that I thought were very Blair Waldorf. It just felt so feminine, but also so adult. If I was doing it right now, she'd definitely be wearing Rosie Assoulin, and then maybe mixing it with Prada or Fendi. Again, mixing with these newer designers and capping it with some of the more established.
What was the best part of working on "Gossip Girl" for you?
Still being able to talk about it 10 years later is pretty cool; still feeling that it's relevant. But the best part of it was the overall experience and where it's led me in my life and my career — and to be at the heart of it and watch the kids grow into these amazing stars. It was so unexpected that it took this turn. I've done collections with Swarovski and a menswear line with Macy's; I was creative director for Charlotte Russe; I got to write a book. It was an incredible experience, and it gave me amazing opportunities that I never would've had in life if I hadn't read that first page of that pilot.
"Gossip Girl" has become such a cultural phenomenon, partially thanks to the costumes; what has it meant to you?
It's meant to me that I get to be able to speak to woman — and men also — about fashion and help them have confidence about it; to be able to speak to them frankly and say, "Fashion's great, but confidence is your best accessory." Writing the book, it was kind of a style guide, but it's also a guide to having self-confidence, and that is the most important thing. You can walk in a room in anything as long as you feel great in it and radiate. That is more important than the label that's on your bag.
It's great to be able to speak to something that still feels relevant a decade later and that's had such an influence — an impact, I feel like — internationally. Not just on the fashion world; I think it's changed how people look at clothing on a daily basis. Girls get to wear sparkly cardigans to the office now. I feel like there's a change that happened that made it okay, and I feel very proud and excited to be a part of that.
My last question is a controversial one.
Did you think Dan should've been Gossip Girl?
I love that Dan is Gossip Girl. I do! It was an unexpected turn. He, through all six seasons, was so holier than thou, judging all those kids, but then you realize he just felt ostracized and wanted to be a part of it in such a big way that he had to take this on. Then it just consumed him and he became Gossip Girl. I think it was a great choice. Like who was it going to be — Georgina?! [Laughs]
I was one of the people that thought it was Dorota.
She knew so much! [Laughs] I felt like if anyone was going to get a spin-off, it was going to be Dorota.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Courtesy Warner Brothers